News & Politics

White House's Ties to Health Care Industry Deeper Than Visitor Records Show

The White House released records cataloguing 575 visits by health care industry heavyweights since Jan. 20. The ties run deep.

In August, the Associated Press asked the Obama White House -- which has promised to be the most transparent administration 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has ever seen -- to release information on all communications between top staff and health care industry bigwigs. The call went unanswered, so in September the AP downgraded its request to a log of health care-related visits to those same top White House officials.

On Wednesday, the White House released records of 575 such visits since Jan. 20. It catalogs meetings with 22 top Obama aides including chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and senior advisers Valerie Jarrett, David Axelrod, and Pete Rouse.

The list of White House guests is a real who's-who of the health care industry. It includes Billy Tauzin, chief of PhRma, the drug industry lobby; Scott Serota, president and CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield; and lobbyists from the Business Roundtable, an organization representing the policy interests of head honchos at major U.S. companies.

The AP detailed a few of the hundreds of health care meetings, and from that sampling, I figured we might find some interesting connections -- this being Washington, D.C. -- between the visitors and the White House staffers they met with. In order to more effectively analyze the ties between the people and organizations represented at these meetings, AlterNet enlisted the research skills of Kevin Connor, co-founder of LittleSis.org, a watchdog site self-styled as an "involuntary facebook for powerful people."

In our social network analysis, Connor created a list of the 30 White House visitors mentioned by name in the AP story. (You can check out organizational interlocks and figure out where they've sent their political donations to. Be sure to add and edit, as LittleSis is a crowdsourced research platform.)

Here is what we found. (All links lead to interactive profiles of each entity on LittleSis.)

Rahm Emanuel is closely tied to two of the folks on the list. The first is Joel Johnson, a friend who met the chief of staff one-on-one and who lobbies for UnitedHealth and Kinetic Concepts, a medical device maker. The other is Jonathan Hoganson, a lobbyist who represents Merck and PhRma and who just happens to have worked as Emanuel's legislative director for five years and was also a legislative fellow for Rod Blagojevich. Hoganson met with Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, Rahm's older brother and a special adviser on health care policy in the White House.

• Connections to Tom Daschle, failed nominee for secretary of Health and Human Services, include Joshua Ackil, his former advisor on technology, and lobbyists for Alston & Bird, where Daschle was a policy advisor until recently.

Nancy Pelosi, Joe Lieberman, and Dick Durbin all have former aides on the AP's list, in addition to Emanuel and Daschle.

• Interestingly, from the AP's selection, relatively few are Obama donors. In fact, our searches turned up only three donors: Gerald McEntee, president of AFSCME, Richard Trachtman, lobbyist for the American College of Physicians, and Barry Rand, CEO of the AARP. We ought note, however, that the small number of Obama donors looks somewhat low, but this may be due to the small sampling the AP published. The general observation is nevertheless likely correct -- this isn't a list of Obama donors.

• Indeed, this bunch looks like GOP donors. The high-level donors include Merck CEO Richard Clark and Blue Cross lobbyist Kenneth Kies, who have donated over $100,000 combined to the National Republican Congressional Committee since 1992.

• And because the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has given us a lot to groan about recently, we thought we'd throw in the fact that two on the list sit on its Association Committee of 100, the group that recommends organization policy. They are Billy Tauzin, president of PhRma, and Richard Umbdenstock, head of the American Hospital Association.

What conclusions can we draw? Well, we can certainly say that lobbyists continue to have an incredibly strong presence in the White House, despite Obama's rhetorical campaign flourishes that promised to lessen that sort of influence. Next, although every health care heavyweight has bemoaned health care reform, they have also had the opportunity to speak their minds -- often more than once -- to the big decision-makers in the White House. We can likely assume, then, that these meetings have informed the White House's own visits with congressional leadership charged with crafting reform legislation. In this sense and given where this group's major political donations have gone to -- Republicans -- it's clear that despite industry and across-the-aisle whining, whatever bill finally comes out of Congress will be much more bipartisan than floor votes may indicate.

In the end, the White House is closely intertwined with the health care industry -- at all sorts of professional and personal levels -- and the "new" health care system will bear the imprint of those relationships.

Daniela Perdomo is a contributing writer and editor at AlterNet. You can follow her at @danielaperdomo.